Jun 07 2010

Superstitions – Not All Bad?

The word “superstition” has a pejorative connotation – superstitious beliefs are generally considered to be silly and irrational. People often engage in superstitious behavior with a slightly embarrassed smile, pretending like they don’t take it seriously even while they feel compelled to perform their lucky ritual.

This is all appropriate, in my opinion, as superstitions are magical beliefs. Research has also shown that they are psychologically motivated – a way of dealing with a sense of lack of control. The magical ritual gives us a false sense of control over events (if I wear my lucky T-shirt, my team will win). In fact, research by Whitson and Galinsky shows that feeling a lack of control increases pattern perception even in unrelated areas:

Participants who lacked control were more likely to perceive a variety of illusory patterns, including seeing images in noise, forming illusory correlations in stock market information, perceiving conspiracies, and developing superstitions.

A 2006 study by Perkins and Allen shows that people with a history of physical abuse as children are more likely to believe in the paranormal, especially those beliefs that provide a sense of control, like ESP and witchcraft.The motivation for superstitions seems to be dominantly about control. The process is hyperactive pattern recognition and agency detection. We see patterns that are not there and then attribute an invisible agent to explain them. At it’s simplest level, this can just be assuming cause and effect for two completely unrelated events, like wearing a certain shirt and the outcome of a sports competition. Some people are struck with the sense that there is some mystical power in the universe that connects these two events.

Recent studies by Damisch et. al. show another aspect of superstition, however – a potentially beneficial effect. Researchers looked at task performance and the carrying out ritual superstitions, like crossing one’s fingers. They found:

“Activating a superstition boosts participants’ confidence in mastering upcoming tasks, which in turn improves performance.”

They also found this improved performance effect was partly explained by improved “self efficacy assessment” and partly by increased task persistence. Subjects were more confident and they engaged in the task more. If true that could mean that belief in superstitions may provide a specific selective advantage, and not just be a side effect of our psychological makeup.

To make things more interesting, other research indicates a small tendency for superstitious beliefs to correlate with a lower self-efficacy assessment. So superstitious people may have lower confidence at baseline. But what is the cause and effect? Do superstitions arise in people with low confidence as a compensatory mechanism, or does belief in superstitions cause lower confidence – perhaps a surrendering of control to the magical agent? Both directions of causation could be at work in a self-reinforcing effect.

So while acting out superstitious rituals may temporarily improve confidence and therefore performance, not having the superstitious beliefs in the first place is also associated with higher confidence. These effects have not been studied together, however, and follow up research comparing various groups would be very interesting.

This relationship between superstition, confidence, and performance reminds me of Richard Wiseman’s The Luck Factor. In this book he describes the research showing that people who think they are lucky actually are more “lucky” than people who believe they are unlucky. However – people seem to make their own luck. Believing in one’s own good fortune motivates people to take chances, seize opportunities, and create the opportunity for good fortune to come to fruition. Whereas “unlucky” people doom themselves by failing to do these things.

We may therefore be seeing a more general principle – self confidence, even if it is propped up by magical beliefs, translates to better “luck” and performance. But it is the self-confidence that really works, and certainly this can be derived from non-superstitious sources.

I instinctively recoil from vacuous self-affirmations (like Stewart Smalley), but the research does seem to indicate that believing in oneself really does translate into success. I prefer to bolster my self-confidence with knowledge and understanding. Call it the skeptic’s self-affirmation.

15 responses so far

15 thoughts on “Superstitions – Not All Bad?”

  1. Pinky says:

    I have no problem with the idea of positive affirmations supporting success.

    Extending your sports example (I play football of the world game variety) when your striker misses a goal you often say something along the lines of, “Nice shot mate! You’ll sink the next one!”

    A negative response or silence is out of the question and severely frowned upon.

    In this example no amount of knowledge and understanding will help the striker score – it’s about motor skills and coordination. Missing causes frustration which can be allayed by your team-mates positive affirmations of success with your next attempt.

    Just don’t miss again, ok? 😛

  2. BillyJoe7 says:

    I think they should trash the ritual and go for with the confidence thing without the ritual

    A recently retired top goalkicker in Australian Rules Football used to always grab a handful of grass and toss it into the air to assess the wind direction. It became so ingrained in his preparation for kicking at goal that he continued doing it when he played at a new ground that was fully enclosed with no possibility of a wind factor to take into account. It was painful to watch.

    Now we have another goalkicker who almost pirouettes in his run up. Its going to be interesting to see how this develops. I predict that before the year is out, we will see an opponent pirouetting in imitation to put him off.

  3. Todd W. says:

    Whenever I hear about superstitions, I’m reminded of the study that, IIRC, involved pigeons. (Writing this from memory, so I may make some mistakes in the details.) In order to receive food, the pigeons had to peck a switch on their feeder that released food. The feeder was on a random schedule, so sometimes when they pecked, they received food; other times they didn’t. One (perhaps more; I can’t recall) developed a superstitious behavior where it would do circles before pecking the switch. The researchers had not made any attempt to train this behavior into the birds. So, it seems, from that study, that superstitious behaviors are not a uniquely human thing.

  4. simonlogan says:

    I always think of superstition/faith to be a crutch that is useful but should be immediately discarded as soon as it’s no longer needed.

    Think of it like a person who has to travel through a long, dark tunnel. They don’t know if the tunnel is safe or filled with danger such as traps, deadliy animals and more. Without the knowledge of their safety they may be trapped there, unable to go any further – faith or believe that they can make it through (whether raw or rooted in an action such as “if I just cross myself first I’ll be okay”) allows them to proceed.

    The downside, of course, is that if that belief isn’t based on fact that it may well turn out to be untrue – so no matter how much they believe they can make it through unharmed if there’s a giant pit in the middle or a vicious beast which will attack them, then it’ll be there whether they believe it or not.

    To me, science (or fact or reason, whatever), is like a torch. It allows the person to illuminate the tunnel, or even just a part of it directly ahead, to KNOW whether there is a danger there or not. Once you have this torch you no longer have a need for faith or for superstitions.

    The tragedy is when people are offered this torch and either throw it away or choose to proceed with it turned off …

  5. SARA says:

    The motivation for superstitions seems to be dominantly about control.

    I think its the reason people believe in religions. They want to feel that there are explanations for things that are hard to accept – like death, disease, disaster. They want to feel that they can somehow influence outcomes of things they can’t control. So they have God and prayer.

    The realization that I influence most of the events in my life, is a much more “in control” feeling, than thinking God controls it all. And being able to accept that some things will never be in my control gives me more feeling of control, than when I thought that some being in the sky had it against me for reasons I didn’t understand.

    At least the positive affirmations are self oriented. Religions are a way to avoid control.

  6. Calli Arcale says:

    People always want to know what’s going on, on some level, though they will accept differing levels of confidence in the answers. I think it is oversimplistic to say people believe in religious because they like the idea that God is controlling it; in fact (and you alluded to this in your first paragraph, Sara), it’s usually about controlling God. How to make the right supplications to achieve a particular divine intercession.

    To me, it seems the study wasn’t so much looking at superstition as it was at ritual. The difference is subtle, of course, but I think ritual may be a more useful description. It encompasses superstition and also other rituals where there’s nothing superstitious (like bedtime routines or pep rallies) and perhaps also the “placebo effect”. I’m sure some of it is just expectation. As we go through the ritual, we increase our expectation of the event to come, and bring our minds into the appropriate state (whatever that might be — drowsiness with a bedtime routine, heightened alertness with a pre-battle routine, etc.), and consequently we do better. Or we do not; if we don’t, the ritual may fade.

    I am suddenly reminded of what Antoine de St-Exupery had to say about rites, in “La Petit prince”. From the most common English translation, the fox explains rites to the Little Prince, as part of the process of “taming”:

    “It would have been better to come back at the same hour,” said the fox. “If, for example, you come at four o’clock in the afternoon, then at three o’clock I shall begin to be happy. I shall feel happier and happier as the hour advances. At four o’clock, I shall already be worrying and jumping about. I shall show you how happy I am! But if you come at just any time, I shall never know at what hour my heart is to be ready to greet you… One must observe the proper rites…”

    “What is a rite?” asked the little prince.

    “Those also are actions too often neglected,” said the fox. “They are what make one day different from other days, one hour from other hours. There is a rite, for example, among my hunters. Every Thursday they dance with the village girls. So Thursday is a wonderful day for me! I can take a walk as far as the vineyards. But if the hunters danced at just any time, every day would be like every other day, and I should never have any vacation at all.”

    We have far more rituals than we are likely to admit, and they define the shape of our lives. They are not merely superstitions; they go beyond the crazy, weird things and into the quite ordinary things, yet they are no less powerful. The tricky part is that they define us, even as we define them, much like language.

  7. ccbowers says:

    “To me, it seems the study wasn’t so much looking at superstition as it was at ritual. The difference is subtle, of course, but I think ritual may be a more useful description.”

    It appears to me that rituals become superstitions fairly easily. A ritual becomes a superstition when a person believes that performing the ritual will impact an event, separate from what that ritual actually accomplishes. In your example, even bedtime routines can resemble superstitions if a person is very rigid about following it precisely for fear that they will not get good sleep.

  8. Shelley says:

    Success/performance and anxiety form an inverted U-shaped distribution with increased anxiety improving performance/success to a point (the “choke”) at which further anxiety results in a significant decline in performance/success.

    So to do our best, we do need to be a little concerned about how we’ll perform, but not too much. Superstitions and rituals, (I suspect) take the edge off the anxiety so that it doesn’t overwhelm performance: “I’m nervous, but I’m wearing my lucky t-shirt today, so I’ll be fine.”

    Consequently, the ritual/superstition serves the purpose of lowering anxiety, which does in fact, improve performance.

  9. Shelley says:

    To be clear: I’m not advocating superstitions or rituals — just pointing out an explanation for why they seem to work.

  10. ccbowers says:

    I don’t doubt that superstitious rituals maybe be helpful for some people in certain situations by making someone less nervous or feel more confident when things are outside of that person’s control, but…
    Let’s not forget the mention the obvious: there can be a price to pay with superstitions, especially when there are things that are not outside of a person’s control. Superstitions can waste energy and resources that could be used more productively to solve a problem. They can be a distraction and be detrimental when real solutions exist, but the superstition is given a higher priority in the person’s mind. The obvious example: The person who believes that prayer will cure their cancer, and they ignore or postpone real treatments that would have given them a high likelihood of survival.

  11. It occurs to me that the study wasn’t particularly well controlled. (Note: I’ve only read the abstract, skimmed the article and read a couple of write-ups). Sure, I agree the study found superstitions can improve performance, but it didn’t test whether the effect was specific to superstition. Does simple self-affirmation – sans anything paranormal – have the same benefits? How about a pat on the back from an authority figure?

    Basically I’m saying the study didn’t determine whether there is a general phenomenon of performance enhancement one manifestation of which is superstitious, or whether the benefits are specific to superstition. Also: do similar benefits accrue to people who don’t believe in bollocks? E.g. if you give a skeptic a lucky clover or something, does her performance improve?

  12. Sastra says:

    When discussing religion, Daniel Dennett uses the example of Dumbo and the “magic feather.” The feather is only a prop to give confidence in the aerodynamics, a benign lie on the part of friend mouse. Dennett focuses, though, on the interesting attitude the audience has towards the deception. He hypothesizes that, if one of the onlooking crows had tried to tell Dumbo the feather wasn’t magic after all, there would have been protests from the viewers. “Stop that crow!” Dumbo needs to believe in magic, or he won’t really be able to fly.

    This is the “faitheists” attitude towards religion: the little people can’t handle the truth. They have to believe in order to prop up their own confidence. So you can’t make people question it. It’s also an attitude I’ve run into with alternative medicine. Proponents seem to think that, even if reiki or homeopathy is pure bunk, it’s wrong and even dangerous to tell people that — because then you lose the placebo effect.

  13. Shelley says:

    I’m not able to access the article — only the abstract. Can anyone tell me whether they measured/controlled for anxiety?

    I suspect that with strongly held superstitions, as with OCD, people often recognise at a fundamental level that the ritual makes no sense or is excessive, but the ritual continues because it temporarily brings anxiety down — they feel better. So, it “works” for them.

    Treatment involves exposure to the anxiety provoking stimulus and blocking of the ritual. You get a temporary increase in anxiety, but with repeated exposure, anxiety goes down and they lose the ritual.

  14. MarkMarijnissen says:

    I have to make a distinction between the real world and the phenomological world. The first is reality, the latter is our experience (of that reality).

    Science is the only method to develop reliable models of “the real world”, since it’s methodology is auto-correcting. Also, since science effictively counters tricks our minds play with us (e.g. confirmation bias, placebo effect, etc) by relying on repeatable measurements and data.

    If our goal is to understand and control “the real world”, then science is our only option and superstition and magical thinking is “bad”.

    HOWEVER, and this is my point: Magical thinking DOES change the way you experience things. This is why we should not condemn magical thinking. It is a useful tool for hapiness and feeling good, as long as you realize that magical thinking does not affect the “real world”.

    If you use magical thinking to understand and control the “real world”, it only deludes you – and leaves you ultimately frustrated because you don’t have any control. If you use magical thinking to control your inner phenomological world, you can turn a sadness into hapiness.

    For example: I could imagine an energy connecting me with everybody around me. While I know there is no real energy connecting me to other people, imaginging as if helps me to feel warm and friendly towards others, something I enjoy en prefer over feeling alone and isolated.

    Another example: I could believe that people can telepathically sense my mood and intention. While I know this is nonsense (apart from just empathy people have), it helps me trust in myself (since I know my intentions are good – they will come across) and it motivates me to feel good (so others will feel it too). If I did not have this magical thinking, I would more easily worry if people perceive me well, or I would more easily indulge in hatefull, “not-in-the-mood” behavior.

  15. BillyJoe7 says:

    …phenomenolgical 😉

    It seems to me that you see magical thinking as a bridge
    But it could also be seen as a crutch, and I think it is possible to achieve all that without that crutch.

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